Pima Community College will redeem itself by working through the issues that led to its probation and potential loss of its accreditation, the new chancellor said.
Lee Lambert, who became chancellor earlier this month, said in an interview that he took the job because he feels he can lead to the needed changes.
"I believe I bring the leadership to put the wheels back on the bus, if you will, to keep it moving in the right direction,” said Lambert, who came to Tucson after seven years as president of Shoreline Community College in Seattle.
Pima has been in turmoil for more than 18 months, since former chancellor Roy Flores went on medical leave, and then retired under the heat of sexual harassment accusations and reports of financial irregularities.
The search for a successor was suspended when one finalist was found to have had ties to another school that had financial problems. The issues culminated in April when the Higher Learning Commission placed Pima on probation, giving the college two years to make corrections or lose its accreditation. At that time, the interim chancellor, a Flores protégé, resigned abruptly.
Lambert said he sees opportunity rather than dread in the face of the problems.
"Probation is not a death knell," he said. "Probation is an opportunity to step back, re-examine and reassess: what are we doing and how are we doing it. I think this is a great opportunity if we use it for what it is, a self-assessment, ability to look at how we can get better at what we do."
To keep its accreditation, the college must rebuild community credibility, set fiscal issues straight and engage the five-member Board of Governors, which stood in support of Flores despite the accusations against him.
This month as part of its effort to lift the probation, the college issued a public apology, acknowledging it had wrongly ignored complaints and did not act with integrity. Lambert said reaction to that apology has been good.
"People realize that their institution, that the leadership is willing to say, ‘You know what, we dropped the ball’," he said. "And the fact we’re willing to acknowledge that means we’re in a position to address it. Until you know you have work to do, then it’s hard to do the work.”
For Lambert, that work includes keeping the Board of Governors informed of and engaged in operations. It is a responsibility on which, Lambert said, Flores fell short.
"Putting in a system of accountability, making sure we’re fulfilling our mission, begins and ends with me," Lambert said. "That Board of Governors – they’re very dependent on my expertise, my ability to communicate with them about the strengths, the weaknesses, the opportunities of Pima Community College. ... I have to own that as the chancellor, that the breakdown was also a breakdown because of the chancellor’s breakdown.”
Redeeming Pima’s reputation after the breakdown is Lambert’s main goal, he said.
“I think one of the keys is to reach out to the community, and reach out to the businesses and industries that make up Tucson and the greater Pima area, and for that fact the state of Arizona,' he said, "and start to say what’s important to you, how can we work together to make sure your needs are being met, that your investment as a taxpayer is being utilized effectively for the betterment of the community.”
Lambert has already been meeting with groups and individuals in the community in what he sees as a needed approach given that the college has less than two years to satisfy the Higher Learning Commission so probation is lifted and accreditation maintained.